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Newsletter: How to boost mental health at your workplace

An illustration of a group of masked people around a conference table.
Employers should let their workers know that mental health is a priority and make workers feel safe to discuss the matter, experts say.
(Rose Wong / For The Times)

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times business section’s audience engagement editor. In looking at mental health among U.S. workers, my colleague Roger Vincent recently found that many employees are looking to their managers for support but often aren’t receiving adequate help.

Ultimately, though, the COVID-19 pandemic — which has added tremendous stress to our lives — may result in more awareness in the importance of mental health care, experts say.

“Everyone is just a lot more open about mental health in general,” says Anna Naify, consulting psychologist at California’s Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission. “We’ve found that [workers are] having to do a lot less convincing to people about the importance of mental health in the workplace.”

Here are some steps that employers and employees can take to bolster mental health support at work.

What can employers do to support mental health in the workplace?

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Self-assess: The most important step for employers to take is honestly assessing how they manage and treat their workers, says Patricia Grabarek, an adjunct professor of psychology at USC and co-founder of workplace wellness consulting and training firm Workr Beeing.

Mindfulness tools and fitness programs are “great to have,” Grabarek says, but if company leaders “understand how to treat employees and how to give grace during times of stress, I think that’s where [they’re] going to make the biggest impact.”

Anonymous employee engagement surveys can be a good way for organizations to get feedback, although Graberek notes that these may not work if the culture is particularly toxic. In those cases, bringing in a third party to do anonymized focus groups could help employees feel more secure about speaking out, Grabarek says.

Surveys should ask employees questions such as “Do you feel like the work distribution is fair?” and “Do you feel like you have an understanding of what you’ve been asked to do?” Naify says.

In addition to surveys, Naify advises employers to keep an eye on trends over time by monitoring data such as worker absences for mental health reasons and Employee Assistant Program usage.

Invite open conversations: Employers should let their workers know that mental health is a priority and learn about employee needs, both in group settings and in one-on-one meetings, organizational development psychologist Shané Teran says.

To help create an environment so the worker can open up, employers can start with the question, “How have you really been doing?” advises Teran, who is also founder of the organizational health and executive wellness consulting firm SP Consulting Group.

If employees seem uncomfortable discussing workplace mental health challenges with their employers, Teran says it may be helpful to enlist the help of professional workplace wellness coaches from outside the organization.

Keep in mind that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, workers are usually not obligated to share their medical information — which includes mental health information — with their employers. The law also limits the circumstances under which employers are allowed to ask about their workers’ mental health, and it forbids discriminating against a worker simply because of a mental health condition.

Learn about resources: “You would be surprised at how ill-informed people are about the benefits that are available,” says Garen Staglin, co-founder of brain health nonprofit One Mind, the founding organization of One Mind at Work, a coalition of employers focused on workplace mental health.

He suggests employers explore the Workplace Mental Health Assessment, a joint project of One Mind along with the American Psychiatric Assn. Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health and Mental Health America, to learn about resources, tools and programs.

We list some additional resources later in this newsletter.

Reassure employees it’s safe to accept help: Many employers who offer mental health programs have a “last-mile problem,” One Mind Executive Vice President Daryl Tol says, “where you bring a tool to team members but they won’t use it because they’re afraid they’ll be discovered or they’re afraid that by using it someone will find out and their job will be in jeopardy.”

To remedy this issue, experts suggest that employers speak about their own struggles with mental health as a way of normalizing the conversation. “When employees have leaders who are talking about their own experiences or their family’s experiences,” Naify says, that “helps to reduce stigma.”

Speaking about the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is a good opportunity. “We’ve all been through the global pandemic,” Tol says. “Managers have the opportunity right now to start speaking very openly and authentically about the struggle that they’ve been through.”

To address fears about potential discrimination, employers can say they won’t use knowledge of a worker’s mental health conditions against them — that the information won’t factor into decisions about assignments, promotions or firings — and then make sure to keep their word.

Allow schedule flexibility and understand different work styles: Being flexible about work hours can be a low-cost way for employers to support their workers’ mental health. “Giving people flexibility and autonomy and control of their own schedules can make a huge impact,” Grabarek says.

It doesn’t require a big shift in company policy. “All you have to do is allow your employees to take an hour here and there, if they need it, as long as the work is getting done,” Grabarek suggests.

At the same time, Grabarek notes, it’s important not to overburden those who wish to adhere to a strict 9-to-5 work schedule, or other pre-established hours, and leave their early mornings and evenings free from work. “They’re the ones that are going to be impacted more from a mental health perspective if they’re getting emails at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m.”

Grabarek recommends that managers avoid sending messages or emails late in the evening; instead, they can schedule the messages to be sent during regular work hours.

Offer financial support if possible: “Everyone should recognize the economic consequences of COVID,” especially for women in the workplace, Staglin says. He’s seen some employers offer free child-care services to ease the burden and stress of working parents.

In addition, Staglin points to employers who have guaranteed their employees that no one will be laid off during the pandemic. “That’s helped dramatically.”

Prioritize sustainability: Once employers begin to offer stronger mental health support, make sure it doesn’t disappear over time, Teran says. Company leaders should make sure it’s a part of their overall budget moving forward.

“The worst thing that you can do with anyone, especially in the mental health space, is start the journey to letting them open up, and then shut it down because of funding,” Teran says.

How can workers advocate for better mental health support in the workplace?

Organizing with fellow workers who share your concerns is a good first step, experts say.

“We’ve seen examples of different employees kind of gathering together and creating employee resource groups around mental health,” Naify explains. “Groups of employees with mental health needs will meet on a regular basis and talk about their experiences,” as well as recommendations for company leaders.

Meeting with fellow employees doesn’t need to be a formal process, Tol says. For example, he’s seen teams take coffee breaks together over Zoom to discuss challenges in the workplace. “We’ve seen that become very helpful and build influence in companies,” he says.

When approaching management with requests for more mental health support, it’s helpful for employees to consider their leadership’s priorities. “Send a report that speaks the language of the leadership,” Teran suggests.

For example, if leadership cares most about the organization’s financials, employees should consider making the case that investing in employee mental health will end up saving money.

One Mind at Work offers a variety of data points that employees may want to reference. Workr Beeing, Grabarek’s company, also offers courses and podcasts that explain why investing in mental health is important.

Teran recommends that workers explain their request for greater mental health support in a letter and ask for a response within a specific time frame.

To ease anxiety about approaching management, Staglin suggests employees focus on the universality of mental health challenges. “Everybody has somebody” in their lives who has struggled with mental health, he says — including managers.

Additional resources:

Naify says employee assistance programs are often “the first line of defense.” There’s also the public mental health system. “Every county has a Mental Health Access line that you can call,” Naify says. She also points individuals to California Hope, a statewide mental health portal that offers resources.

Staglin recommends Mental Health First Aid’s training curriculum for people who want to grow as mental health ambassadors in the workplace.

Grabarek points to the Wellness Council of America’s training courses as another resource for businesses.

Those interested in mental health apps can take a look at One Mind’s PsyberGuide, which offers expert reviews of such apps.

Teran urges employers to do some research into grants or other funds they could apply for to support their mental health initiatives. “It’s important for them to make sure that whatever the options are, that they take advantage of it, and not just sit back [and] say that we don’t have it in the budget.”

And leaders should also take care of their own mental health, Teran says. “Ultimately, when you are the one leading the charge, having to be the one sustaining everything, you can get lost.”

◆ Up to 4 million Californians could be leaving stimulus money on the table. Madalyn Amato breaks down how to get it.

Stop grousing about vaccine “passports” — they’re the key to reopening society, columnist Michael Hiltzik writes.

◆ Landlords are waiting for rent payments, and some can’t hold on much longer. Andrew Khouri describes the ways many small property owners are struggling alongside tenants to make it through the pandemic.

Need rent help? Khouri breaks down how L.A. city residents can now apply for aid from a $235-million fund.

◆ The pandemic has made working with a financial planner easier. Liz Weston, herself a certified financial planner, explains how.

Need a job? Trucking, nursing and customer service workers are in demand, reports Kathy Kritof, editor of SideHusl.com.

◆ Victims of scammers can feel foolish and ashamed. Columnist David Lazarus describes why it can be helpful to open up about those feelings.

◆ And a peek into medical ethics: YouTuber Stevie Ryan’s death devastated her friends and family. Now there’s an ongoing legal proceeding against a nurse practitioner who provided Ryan, the star of VH1’s “Stevie TV,” with psychiatric care, Daniel Miller reports.

One more thing

Elon Musk wants to create his own city, called Starbase, in Texas. My colleague Samantha Masunaga recently examined how that could work.

Incorporating Starbase could give SpaceX more control on a local level, which could allow the company to conduct more test launches and flights without having to evacuate the surrounding area. It could also set up the location to be more attractive, drawing workers to the area, Masunaga writes.

However, workers who move there could be left in a vulnerable position. When a community has a single dominant employer, that community’s “own viability is tied to the survival of the company,” Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Masunaga. “That’s not necessarily ideal, and it produces really tough outcomes if the place doesn’t make it.” Read the full story here.

Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californiainc@latimes.com, and we may include it in a future newsletter.


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